I have only been a member on this site since July of 2003, and found it to be THE BEST site for my own needs. Having been away from serious B&W photography for almost 25 years I needed something to get me going - some things had changed and so had I.
At this time I feel that my work is almost average, but improving - improving because of this site. Wanting to take it to the next level I have looked at film, paper, developer, etc.
The questions I have ask and those of others wishing to improve our prints is constant, and I thought I would share my thoughts on HOW, those of us that wish to improve our work could.
Below is a list of what I feel will allow me to move from average work, to work that is worthy of hanging on the walls of my home and hopefully the walls of others...
Become consistent. Do not add to many variables. This means find one film, one format (35, 120, 4x5) and determine a personal EI for that film. That means learning how to use the light meter and not think in terms of film speed.
Use one developer, my choice is Rodinal, though I really want to try Pryocat..it can wait. At this point I feel that I should stick to just one dilution, cut the variables.
Work with one paper and developer - this means finding and sticking to what seems to be working for me. There are so many choices, and reading what different folks on this site doing makes you want to try what they are doing. This is especially true when you see work in the gallery or the web site of members that just "Rocks". Again, at this point I feel the need to stick with just one size paper (8x10 in my case) - cut the variables.
Now, once I have been able to shoot, process the film and print what I consider an above average print, and do so more often than not, then I will allow myself to add a Single variable and determine if it for me and then see if I can master it. Baby steps - yes, slow - probably, frustrating - probably at times.
Looking at the work posted by many on this site makes me (and I feel sure others) want to immulate what they have done in order to have our own work look as good. The lessons I have learned on this site are many - there are NO magic bullets. The search for an expressive print that we can be proud of depends on knowing the tools we use and how to use them.
In some ways the journey to an expressive print is just starting, in other ways, I feel that I am more than half-way there. For those that are searching for a way to improve your work I offer these final thoughts..
Stick to the thoughts above, one step at a time.
Use APUG as a reference, along with others you know.
Go out and take photographs, bring them back, process and print.
Sorry for the long ramble, but you folks are the best and I wanted to try to help the next person that wants to take their work to the next level.